TNA has two more editions of Impact Wrestling between now and Slammiversary. My reaction to the May 16th edition of the show? They need to kick it into high gear. Fast. This show was solid (the cynic in me wants to say “very adequate”), but with the quarterly pay per view model, TNA needs to create storylines that will get people outside of the “diehard TNA fan” bubble to actually pay for the product. The build to Slammiversary has been a C- so far, but they have two weeks to build to a crescendo, so let’s reserve my final judgment until then.
A.J. Styles and Aces & Eights
Ken Anderson told Angle that A.J. was definitely joining the group and to expect a huge celebration for his “patching in” next week. After A.J. hit Angle, they showed everybody’s favorite motorcycle gang reacting as if Christmas was coming twice this year. In my opinion, that segment was one of the most effective things that had been done with Aces & Eights recently: they seemed heelish and overly confident, but it also made A.J. Styles seem like a big deal, something that has been missing in the building of this storyline. They acted as though A.J. was a “great get,” something TNA severely dropped the ball on with Ken Anderson, who joined the group to minimal fanfare.
For anybody who is familiar with wrestling angles (or writing in general), this segment also got across that A.J. will probably not join Aces & Eights. They did a great job of making the heels seem overconfident, setting up the idea that the gang will be totally shocked and hurt when A.J. doesn’t join and they get what they deserve.
TNA has been guilty of letting heels get over on babyfaces too much over the years, and this segment gave viewers hope that the heel group would look foolish on the next edition of Impact. This segment reminded me of Elmer Fudd with his shotgun pointed down the rabbit hole: he has his moment of absolute, gloating certainty that he’s “gonna get the wabbit,” while the experienced viewer knows that Buggs is just off screen, about to step in and kick the moronic hunter in the behind.
This segment was effective because it portrayed Aces & Eights as undeniably heelish while also setting them up for the crushing blow of a babyface actually getting over on them. The A.J. Styles as “Crow” Sting angle hadn’t really been getting over on many fans, myself included, but I thought this week’s edition of Impact did an excellent job pushing that storyline forward and hinting that it was about to kick into a higher gear.
Bully Ray being presented as Main Event
Despite Aces & Eights being featured heavily in the first hour, TNA did a great job holding Bully Ray back and making him feel “main event” for his contract signing. They let Anderson act as the capo in the first hour of the show, which protected Ray from being part of the more midcard Aces & Eights angle. If TNA are going to successfully rebrand Bully Ray as a centerpiece heel after decades as a tag team wrestler, this is the way they need to book him: let him be the dominant champion, not the leader of a million-man, bumbling fool group.
I look back to Raven at the height of his powers in ECW (and somewhat in his WCW run) as the model for Bully Ray to successfully get over. Raven had his army of lackeys and bump guys, but Raven never allowed himself to be lowered or dragged down by their midcard shenanigans. While I liked the previously-referenced Aces & Eights segment showing them overly-celebrating A.J.’s potential induction into the group, one of the best parts of the segment to me was that Ray wasn’t a part of it. TNA was wise not to group their champion in with a bunch of easily-fooled geeks.
Ray also benefitted by only sharing time and space in the ring with Sting. For better or worse, Sting has been presented as the ultimate TNA babyface over the last year, and their contract segment got across that fans are going to see the ultimate babyface versus the ultimate heel at Slammiversary. The introduced stipulation that if Sting loses he will never get another shot at the title serves to effectively kick Ray up to the next level. If he defeats Sting, he will have unseated a career-long main-eventer, essentially communicating to the audience that Sting’s ship has sailed and Ray is now “the guy.” If TNA are going with Bully Ray as champion moving forward, they need a lot more shows like this edition of Impact in which they made him seem truly special, truly main event, and a true threat to the biggest babyfaces in the company.
Things to Worry About:
The X Division Title Situation
I liked three-way match between Petey Williams, Chris Sabin, and champion Kenny King on this Impact, although I see merit in the argument that it was just a series of moves. For me, the issue is that Kenny King is really good, and getting better every week, at portraying a heel X Division Champion. Chris Sabin winning the title at Slammiversary almost seems inevitable, given his big push returning from injury, his wrestling ability, and the degree to which he’s over with TNA fans, but for my money Sabin winning the title will seem a little sad, given what King’s accomplished.
Kenny King has grown from an ROH Tag Team Champion into a legitimate singles champion on a network that a large number of people actually get. He’s been one of the real bright spots in TNA for the last several months. He and Sabin are both deserving of the spot as X Champion, but the last thing I’d want to see is Kenny King sent back down into the “qualifying rounds” of X Division triple threat matches. He carries himself so well as champion that in spite of Sabin’s greatness, it would seem a shame to take the belt from King. He deserves to work with top tier X Divison talent, not Christian York or Robbie E. in some mess of a qualifying match.
My other concern with the X Division is that what’s effectively being built is a singles match between Sabin and King, which it doesn’t seem like TNA is actually going to present. On one hand, TNA could take a break from the triple threat formula for the pay per view, which would definitely be better for the feud, as I whole-heartedly believe that King and Sabin are fully capable of a great, show-stealing one-on-one title match.
On the other hand, Impact has been pushing the triple threat concept for such a short period of time that deviating from it now might threaten fans’ belief that the stipulation means anything. TNA fans have been presented with too many immediately back burnered ideas (see: The Legends Title, weekly TV Title defenses, on-again-off-again X Division weight limits). TNA has consistently failed to give fans something to hold onto concept-wise with the X Division, and while a one-on-one match for the title seems like the best thing TNA can present, they’ve effectively booked themselves into a no-win corner in which what’s best for the Title and what’s best for show seem at odds with each other.
Tag Team Title Situation
TNA announced that there will be a four-corners tag team title match at Slammiversary, featuring champions Mexican America, Bad Influence, Aries & Roode, and James Storm with a partner of his choosing. Storm is one of the truly great characters to ever come out of TNA, but the company has done so much to devalue him over the last two years on TV. When he was absolutely white hot coming off of winning the World Heavyweight Title, they wrote him off TV because he basically “lost his smile,” and then after bringing him back when he should have been hot, they booked him so inconsistently that they destroyed the value of holding him off TV for multiple months. He’s an above-average main event worker who has an actual connection to the fans, but they’ve mismanaged his pushes so badly that it’s hard for me to believe that this is finally the vehicle to get him over huge.
This whole tag team mess seems over-booked, to put it lightly. A tag team match by definition already has four competitors in it, and having a four-corners tag title match puts so many men in the ring at once that you really lose the sense that a title match should be somehow “pure.” The “each team has a corner and anybody can tag anybody in” method to putting these matches together just makes the storytelling of a tag team match sloppy, destroying the classic drama and psychology of tag team wrestling.
This match further displays TNA’s inability to poop or get off the pot when it comes to Bad Influence vs. Rood & Aries (something I wrote about in my preview of the show). Bad Influence are, for my money, the best heel tag team in North American, mainstream wrestling short of The Shield (who I don’t really consider a tag team, anyway). They’re both good workers in the ring and they effectively get their characters across as unlikable douchebags every week. However, presenting Roode & Aries side-by-side with Bad Influence fundamentally devalues the latter because the former is a super-team of former World Heavyweight Champions. Perhaps all the heat Aries has caught since the night this episode was taped will lead to some changes being made between now and Slammiversary, however. I think we would have seen much different tag team development on this edition of Impact if it had been taped after Mark Madden drew attention to Austin Aries’ mistreatment of Christy Hemme.
A cardinal rule of booking (or at least a former cardinal rule of booking) is that titles do not change hands in chaotic multi-man matches. With that said, it’s pretty clear that unless TNA is just going to continually tour the state of Texas, they need to get the titles off Mexican America. Hernandez still has singles main event potential as long as he’s booked against the right opponents, but Chavo Guerrero has failed miserably in TNA. When Chavo first debuted, the thinking was that he could give Hernandez a great rub as a legitimate Latin star (or, honestly, the nephew of a legitimate Latin star). Unfortunately, Chavo has not done a single thing to successfully elevate or enhance Hernandez, and if anything, he’s felt like a placeholder who’s just keeping his partner occupied before they find an opportunity to push him as a meaningful main event star.
With all that said, much like the X Division Title situation, this tag team match seems booked into a no-win corner. Can a Tag Team Title win with a “mystery partner” really elevate Storm? Probably not. Can TNA present Bad Influence and Roode & Aries without doing damage to the group that constitutes an actual heel tag team? Probably not. Are there too many men in this match? Definitely. Do the belts need to come off Mexican America? Definitely.
As I said at the beginning of this review, TNA still has two episodes of Impact to get the car into high gear before Slammiversary. If we were two weeks out from a monthly pay per view, I would say what was presented in this episode was strong. However, given that Impact is headed into one of just four quarterly events, I can only call this episode “very adequate.”